End of life crises have seldom seemed so endless as they do in Lily Thorne’s drama “Peace for Mary Frances,” which opened Wednesday in a New Group production at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre.
The show follows the final days — weeks actually — of a cantankerous Connecticut suburbanite named Mary Frances, played with feisty vigor by the inimitable Lois Smith. She’s the sort of woman who cuts one child out of her will and tells another, “I loved you best.”
Her three grown children, most estranged from each other, descend on the family home to bicker over mom’s medical care and her money and all the ways that they have wronged each other over the years. Mostly those last two.
The chief squabblers are recovering heroin addict Fanny (Johanna Day, all live-wire energy) and part-time astrologer Alice (J Smith-Cameron, exuding both basic competence and a need for constant validation), who displaces Fanny as mom’s chief caregiver as Mary Frances becomes increasingly bed-bound and placed in in-home hospice care.
Thrown in the mix are their mostly-absentee brother, Eddie (Paul Lazar), and Alice’s grown daughters, Rosie and Bonnie (Natalie Gold and Mia Katigbak), who are introduced so abruptly in the first act that I did not know for sure until the second act that they were in fact sisters and not romantic partners raising Rosie’s newborn together.
Thorne has a fine ear for dialogue, deeply attuned to the way family members can nurse resentments and pick at each other’s scabs to deflect from any self-reflection. She also recognizes how character traits can carry through generations, as we see echoes of Fanny’s explosive temper in a sudden and violent outburst from Rosie.
But Thorne also weighs down her drama with a lot of circuitous plotting and didactic exposition about the nature of hospice care, introducing social workers and a home health aide who do little for the narrative but to test the audience’s patience.
Director Lila Neugebauer’s production is also hurt by Dane Laffrey’s split-level set design, whose chief effect is that long scenes unfold in Mary Frances’ elevated bedroom out of the sight line of many patrons in the small Alice Griffin space at Signature.
It’s there that the show’s final scenes play out, of course, but after a very long two and a half hours we are left without the climactic family confrontation or catharsis for which we’ve been bracing. “We don’t want you to suffer and die,” Natalie Gold’s Rosie tells her grandmother at one point, adding half-jokingly, “We just want you to die.”
You may long for that moment to come much, much sooner.